Harnessing the Skills of Senior Workers

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

Problems such as poverty, global health, basic education, and environmental quality are systemic in nature, have both political and technical dimensions, and tend to require cross-sector and cross-profession collaboration. But there is a knowledge gap in developing and implementing viable solutions.

For example, an aging but healthier population includes accomplished leaders who are increasingly interested in public service. Many in this group seek meaningful contributions rather than income, but there is an absence of established pathways. The opportunity this population presents has not been addressed by higher education.

In the past, American universities have tackled major challenges not by incremental change but by founding new graduate and professional schools to educate experienced leaders who wish to tackle societal and global problems in their next phase of life. Such “schools for advanced institutional leadership” could offer more than retraining for new careers. For example, they could focus on honing the knowledge required to lead social institutions and address global challenges.

This approach sounds very similar to that long taken by the foresight community: working across disciplines, taking a systems view of problems, and being willing to craft innovation solutions, including applying new technologies.

The above is a summary of a proposal by Rosabeth Moss Kanter and her colleagues titled “Moving Higher Education to its Next Stage.” Since the time of publication as a working paper in 2005 by the Harvard Business School, this approach has appeared in a number of forms at such leading institutions as Stanford University, state social programs, and nonprofits. In the decade since its publication, the concept has moved beyond the resources and mindset of developed countries and transformed itself beyond the university setting.

Despite its broad appeal, this approach views senior workers as a fully developed resource that stands ready for direction and a few new skills. What thought-leaders have ignored are the financial, health, and even psychological challenges facing this population. Stated in another way, the biggest challenge is not what the nation needs from seniors but what they need from the nation (or the larger community). Should we commit to harnessing a resource that by its nature is diminishing at an increasing rate?

By this observation, I do not mean that the volume of the resource is diminishing. On the contrary, demographic forces are driving the growth of volume of senior workers and will continue to do so for decades to come. What I am referring to is the natural decline of productivity of individual workers as their age increases. Of course, there are some extraordinary exceptions, and technology, exercise, and diet (and even genetic manipulation) continue to provide counterforces to this march of the impact of time. But the ROI formula raises the most concern. Why continue to invest in worker resources that by their nature are more often moving out of the workforce rather than into it?

There are two answers to this crucial question. First, when handled with care, engaged and utilized populations are more robust in term of personal productivity, including their transmission of valuable experience and honed skill sets. Second, the overall social costs are lower for the care of older populations who are healthier, both mentally and physically. These social costs are just beginning to be measured and understood, and in countries such as Japan, they are a growing cause for political and policy-making concern.

To summarize: The tools and insights of foresight have significant utility and relevance in addressing coming social, economic, and political challenges, such as the plight and potential of growing elderly populations worldwide. Policy makers at all levels should be aware that any set of solutions to these problems will generate as many new challenges as easing of demographic pressures.

The fact that this issue falls into the “wicked problem” category should not in any way diminish the moral and social necessity to find solutions. As has often been observed, aging may be put off with a range of strategies, but this is not epidemiology. The “disease” of old age may be mitigated, but never cured. And it is always fatal.

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc.

Reference: “Moving Higher Education to Its Next Stage: A New Set of Societal Challenges, a New Stage of Life, and a Call to Action for Universities” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Rakesh Khurana, and Nitin Nohria. Harvard Business School Working Paper 06-21, November 2005.